Battle by the BayMay 11, 2009 By: Bryan Bass
A month marked by incidents in the San Francisco nightlife community that has left multiple club patrons injured and at least one dead has raised the stakes on a two-year long effort to empower the city’s seven-member Entertainment Commission with the authority to stem the tide of violence that has erupted in the city’s popular nightclub and bar destination neighborhoods including North Beach, the Mission District and South of Market (SoMa).
A second hearing took place this past weekend on a 100-page proposal that would give the Entertainment Commission the authority to close venues after violent incidents, impose strict fines against noise violations, institute no-loitering regulations and expand the area of operator’s responsibilities from 50 feet to 100 feet from the venue. But the result was bureaucratic bickering between the mayor’s office, city supervisors and the San Francisco Police Department that left the proposal in limbo until the next hearing, which is scheduled for May 11. The sticking point, it seems, is a section of legislation that would allow the Entertainment Commission to offer alcohol-free late-night, extended-hours permits to venues operating in the area as a way to keep patrons off the streets and allow them to sober up before making their way into the neighborhoods surrounding the venues. The SFPD, which opposes the amendment, says allowing venues to operate later into the night will further tax a police force already battling a budget crunch, yet didn’t offer a solution for ensuring more responsibility.
One venue forced into the spotlight of the violence is Whisper Nightclub, which closed on May 3rd ,among a litany of unrelated complaints and allegations, after a shooting left four patrons injured when a large crowd formed outside the venue after closing. While the venue had plans for a grand-finale weekend, Mission District Police Capt. Stephen Tacchini pleaded to police officials for additional resources because, as he wrote in a memo earlier this month, “This location has potential for additional violence or casualty due to overcrowding, lack of adequate security or the presence of persons motivated/encouraged to commit violent acts by the type of entertainment and or music.”
Ironically, police chief Heather Fong has opposed widening the Entertainment Commission’s authority even though it would have allowed the Commission to play a larger role in helping combat the ongoing violence by closing venues where incidents take place. “I don’t have the ability to close [Whisper] without a protracted hearing,” Commission executive director Bob Davis told the San Francisco Examiner. “[The owner will] be out of business by then.” Legal representatives of Whisper responded to the city’s request that the club simply close its door immediately by noting that their client is not responsible for what takes place outside of its venue.
The Commission’s fight to offer extended-hours permits is meant to combat exactly that: what is happening outside of venues when the 2 a.m. closing time floods the streets with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of club-goers. One club owner, who spoke with NCB Nightclub Confidential on the promise of anonymity, operating a venue within one of the busy neighborhoods the Examiner referred to as a “combat zone” in a recent editorial, agreed with the Commission’s mindset: “Everyone just gets thrown out the door at 2 a.m. They are drunk, haven’t had a chance to sober up and they are out in the streets mixing like oil and water.” While showing support for both the Entertainment Commission and the SFPD — “They both do a great job” — our operator noted that both club owners and club patrons are the ones losing out while the approval of the pending legislation, which came attached with Mayor Gavin Newsom’s rubber stamp, remains up in the air.
With massive amounts of negative publicity already popping up in the mainstream media outlets and affiliates of the Bay Area, club owners are left to fend for themselves while city officials continue their back and forth. Jocelyn Kane, a spokesperson for the Entertainment Commission told NCB’s Nightclub Confidential, “95 percent of permit operators run their venues extremely well and in a safe and responsible manner. And while thousands of people come to San Francisco, have a great time and leave happy and safe, unfortunately the focus gets put on those venues that are not managing … responsibly.”
The Commission, which handles the issuance and suspension of permits and promotes responsible entertainment and nightlife in San Francisco, was created six years ago as an experiment Kane says has been extremely successful. “Other cities are looking at our model and implementing similar commissions, which proves we have been uniquely successful and a solution for many, many people’s problems.” With that in mind, she says, it’s a no-brainer that the time for this follow-up legislation is now. “It is absolutely the appropriate next step for the evolution of the Commission. The tools we were given in the creation of the Commission are not sufficient. Revision to the legislation is just normal cause and will give us the toolbox we need to improve the situation.”
While some police officials have painted the picture of a Commission power-grab, Kane sternly rebuts that argument, saying, “A stronger partnership with the department is all we’ve ever asked for and we need their help and support.” While there is some optimism that the May 11th hearing will unveil a compromise on sticking points between the city and their police force, operators note that top cop Heather Fong will be vacating her post in upcoming months, possibly leaving this issue on the slate for the next police chief. Stay tuned for more in coming weeks.